It may be a backhanded compliment, but one of the most impressive aspects of Kevin Smith's Red State is how unlike a Kevin Smith film it is.
Whatever you think of Clerks, Chasing Amy and the rest, Smith would be the first to acknowledge that his work is notorious for its loose-at-the-seams plotting and its prolix monologues about sex and/or Star Wars. If you needed a writer-director to furnish brisk pacing and white-knuckle action, he'd be the last person you'd call. Nonetheless, a year on from Cop Out, a film which showed just how horribly he can screw up those very elements, Smith has made an exhilarating, 1970s-style thrill ride which shows that he can do them well, too.
The story gets under way as three teenage boys drive out to the sticks to meet an older woman (Melissa Leo) who's promised them sex on-line. A couple of drugged beers later, the boys wake up in a fortified religious compound where a minister (Michael Parks) is delivering a fire-and-brimstone sermon. He and his congregation are caricatures of Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church, the hate-mongers best known in the UK from Louis Theroux's documentaries, but there isn't much exaggeration.
The scary thing about Parks's preacher is that, in contrast with the standard horror-movie villain, he isn't out to prove how scary he is. He comes across as an unremarkable, plainly dressed man who happens to believe that sinners deserve to die, and who has the scripture and the firepower to back up that belief.
A thriller with him at its heart would be gripping enough, but just when you assume that's what you're getting, Red State shifts its focus. Its new protagonist, John Goodman, is a government agent who's informed by his superiors that Parks has been reclassified as a terrorist. Goodman and his men are authorised to break into the compound, guns blazing, and suddenly the film isn't just evoking the Westboro Baptist Church, but the Waco siege. It confronts us with two different forms of American extremism, each one armed to the teeth with automatic weaponry, and leaves us to work out which is worse. It's bracingly unpredictable. You never know who's about to be shot in the head or who's going to do the shooting.
The disappointment is that, once it's set out its ideas, Red State comes to an abrupt halt. Its bathetic conclusion arrives well before the story has fulfilled its potential. All the same, it's not often that you can charge Smith with doing too little with his concepts, rather than too much. Red State isn't just his best film, but the first of his films that should have been longer.
The Debt is another thriller that's tougher and more complex than you'd
expect of its creators. A remake of an Israeli hit, it's co-written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who collaborated on Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, so it's a surprise to see that it doesn't have any super-powered action or knockabout humour, but weighty issues and a saturnine mood instead.
In the film's bookending sequences, set in 1997, Helen Mirren plays a retired Mossad agent who's lionised for her part in capturing a Nazi eugenicist (Jesper Christensen) 30 years earlier. But Mirren isn't comfortable with the acclaim, and a flashback to the mission shows us why. In this central section, her younger self (Jessica Chastain) is billeted in a flat in East Berlin with two fellow agents, Marton Csokas and Avatar's Sam Worthington. She has the worst job of the three: Christensen now works as a gynaecologist, and the only way to get close to him is for her to become his patient. This situation leads to an unbearably tense scene that fully justifies Chastain's rising-star status, but it pays off for the agents when they snare their quarry. Unfortunately, transferring him to Israel isn't so simple. They're forced to keep Christensen imprisoned with them in their flat, where he can play mind games reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs – the difference being that Clarice Starling didn't have to share a bathroom with Hannibal Lecter.
With a novel's worth of story to cover, it's understandable that The Debt never quite finds its subject: is it a film about catching a war criminal, about being stuck in a room with him, about a love triangle between secret agents, or the pressures that the past can put on the present? But if it's not perfect, it's still a rich, well- directed espionage thriller, proof that Gary Oldman and co aren't playing the only spy game in town.
Nicholas Barber sees Woody Allen's biggest-ever hit, Midnight in Paris
Also Showing: 02/10/2011
The Green Wave (80 mins, 15)
Urgent documentary about the demonstrations in Iran in 2009. Animation is used to dramatise the horrific reprisals.
What's Your Number? (107 mins, 15)
Anna Faris decides to track down her 20 exes, and enlists her hunky neighbour, Chris Evans, to help. Despite all the swearing, it's as predictable and false as romantic comedies get.
The Woman (100 mins, 18)
An all-American dad finds a feral young woman in the woods, and chains her up in his cellar. For a while, it's a tart black comedy, but the gore and the violence against women make it difficult to stomach.
Red, White & Blue (100 mins, 18)
A tantalising indie drama about Texan drifters turns into a phenomenally unpleasant revenge thriller.
Guilty of Romance (112 mins, 18)
And if the two films above don't sate your appetite for sex and extreme violence, you could try this pretentious Japanese drama about a servile housewife who becomes a prostitute.
Broken Lines (97 mins)
It's not surprising that this miserable north London drama has been gathering dust for three years. Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams give stronger supporting performances than the film deserves.
Cane Toads: The Conquest 3D (85 mins, PG)
Amusing documentary about the toxic toads which are hopping across Australia in their millions.
Alain Delon and Romy Schneider keep cool in La Piscine, Jacques Deray's balmy 1969 psycho-drama, now re-released. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling takes the genre of 1980s action thriller for a spin in Drive, set in LA, the latest from Danish hipster Nicolas Winding Refn.